SS Orduna, Warrior, Troop Ship, and Stage for Human Drama
Shipbuilders Harland & Wolff in Belfast, Northern Ireland, built many world famous ships, including the White Star Line’s sister ships Olympic, Titanic, and Britannic, all three of them creating world wide wakes in maritime history. A less famous trio of sister ships, the Orduna, Orbita, and Orca, also came from the Harland & Wolff shipyards in 1913-1914. Even though the Titanic overshadowed the Orduna in physical proportions, power and prestige, the Orduna also carried famous people including Quentin Roosevelt and Robert Baden- Powell and his family, outran German U- boat torpedoes, sheltered Jews escaping from the Holocaust, and carried countless troops to and from battle.
Harland and Wolff built the Orduna for the Pacific Steam Navigation Company. She carried 15, 507 gross tonnage, length 550.3 feet, beam 67.3 feet with one funnel and two masts, and triple screws that gave her a speed of 14 knots. Passenger accommodations included 240 First class, 180 Second Class and 700 Third Class cabins.
Launched on October 2, 1913, in Belfast, the Orduna left Liverpool on her maiden voyage to Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Valparaiso on February 19, 1914. She made two voyages on this run, and then the Cunard Line chartered her and used her on its Liverpool to New York service until 1919.
A New York Times story dated November 11, 1914, headlined the Orduna as the first new ship since the war and reported her arrival in New York from Liverpool with 831 passengers. Both Captain Thomas M. Taylor and the passengers agreed that the Orduna was a steady vessel that had plowed through rough weather from Queenstown to Sandy Hook and made the 2,786 miles in 7 days, 23 hours, and 17 minutes. The Times said that the Orduna had been built to open new service from the west coast of South America to New York via the Panama Canal, but the war in Europe had delayed the service.
The Orduna offered accommodations for 300 first, 250 second, and 450 third class passengers. She featured spacious decks and cabins fitted with bedsteads, glass enclosed promenade decks, a gymnasium, veranda café, and large square windows. Her officers and engineers were all Pacific Company men.
Out Racing Submarines
By 1915, World War I had added hazards besides weather to the Orduna voyages. On February 10, 1915, the Reno Evening Gazette reported that the Orduna flew the American flag to keep German U- boats from attacking her as she traveled back and forth from Europe to the United States.
Many of the Orduna’s passengers were immigrants hoping to start new lives in America if they survived the submarine menace while traveling from the Old World. Florence E. Norris, 21, and Bertha Roberts, 19, traveled to America on the Orduna. Florence arrived in New York from Manchester, England in July 1915, and Bertha left Leeds and arrived in New York on August 15, 1915.
In the 1970s, Bertha Roberts made a recording of her life story describing how a German submarine shadowed the Orduna as she passed through the Irish Sea. Ironically, the passengers on the Orduna didn’t even know that they had been in danger until they read the story in the New York papers. Captain Taylor had saved their lives by flying the American flag on the flagpole, so the Germans wouldn’t realize that the Orduna was a British ship. Florence Norris’ husband had arrived in America on the Cunard ship Lusitania earlier that year, the last trip she would ever make to America.
According to the newspapers of the time the Orduna flew the American flag on several more voyages until even the American flag couldn’t protect her from the menace of German submarine attack. Hints of the ever increasing peril to the Orduna increased as she made another trans- Atlantic voyage from Liverpool to New York in May 1915.
On Sunday May 16, 1915, The Washington Post reported that the Orduna had reached New York and that while at sea her passengers had heard that the RMS Lusitania, jewel of the Cunard Line, had been sunk by a German U- boat on May 7, 1915, twelve miles off the coast of Ireland, but they didn’t know any details. Captain Taylor of the Orduna reported that he had passed the Lusitania at one o’clock that Friday morning, but he didn’t communicate with her. Although the two ships came within hailing distance of each other, the British Admiralty had forbidden wireless operations in and near the war zone. Eleven hours later German submarine U-20 torpedoed the Lusitania.
The Orduna brought 86 passengers to New York on this trip, including F.S. Butterworth of New Haven, Connecticut, a former Yale football star. F.S. Butterworth had spent six months in England and France . Mr. Butterworth told of his experience aboard an English Channel boat on April 29, 1915. Suddenly without warning, a German submarine fired a torpedo at the boat. The captain saw the torpedo coming and since the boat traveled at about 26 knots, it managed to dodge the torpedo which missed the boat by only thirty yards. Mr. Butterworth reported that the channel boat didn’t carry any soldiers, just many women and children.
On July 8, 1915, a German submarine attacked the Orduna during her voyage to New York. Henry Sloan of Centredale, Rhode Island, wrote his account of the submarine incident on Orduna letterhead paper after the Orduna docked in New York and the New York Times published his account on July 21, 1915. According to Mr. Sloan, the Orduna left Liverpool at 4 o’clock in the afternoon of Thursday, July 8, 1915. She had been scheduled to start on July 3, but the sailing had been postponed.
He wrote, “As soon as we were underway the life boats were all swung out. Then the passengers were given special cards indicating the special boat to which they should go in case of attack. To insure the proper carrying out of this plan every passenger was made to don a life belt and stand beside his boat. The first officer then inspected every boat and informed us what to do in case of an attack by a submarine.
At six o’clock next morning the bedroom stewards appeared at every stateroom ordering the occupants to put on their lifebelts and come upon deck. They told us a submarine was chasing us and we immediately made for our stations by the lifeboats. There was no terror apparent anywhere. For a short time we remained on deck ready to enter the boats.”
The German U- Boat raced along the starboard side of the Orduna. Below in the Orduna’s engine room, the engineers worked frantically to build a higher head of steam. On the bridge Captain Taylor used his skill to dodge German shelling, maneuver the Orduna, and finally out race the U- boat, following British Admiralty instructions. The Orduna crew told the passengers that the danger had passed and they returned to their staterooms to prepare for breakfast.
Henry Sloan concluded his account by saying “There seems to be some doubt about the number of shots fired, but I believe that eight is exact. The real reason for the attack on the Orduna is that she is one of the biggest cargo vessels on the Atlantic run at present and can carry over 20,000 tons of cargo.”
Despite the U- boat scare, the Orduna continued her voyages to and from Europe. On September 14, 1915, the Washington Post reported that in its explanation of the U- boat attempt to torpedo the Orduna Germany blamed the captain of the U- boat. German officials said that the captain had been instructed not to attack any liner, but he said that the weather prevented him from making out the nature or nationality of the Orduna. The captain stated that shortly after the Orduna incident he allowed the steamer Normandie carrying a load of lumber to pass unmolested.
The German explanation came in a note that Secretary of State Robert Lansing gave to President Woodrow Wilson on September 13, 1915. The note may have figured in the discussion of the German submarine issue with Count Johann Heinrich von Bernstorff, the German Ambassador.
On October 21, 1915, the Reno Evening Gazette reported that the Cunard liner Orduna arrived in New York from Liverpool. Part of her cargo included $1,250,000 in gold consigned from British to American bankers. After unloading, the Orduna proceeded to Halifax, Nova Scotia, to take on Canadian troops for England.
Fighting World War I
The British government pressed the Orduna into service as an auxiliary cruiser and troop transport in World War I and she made several voyages from Halifax, Canada to Liverpool, England. On July 23, 1917, Quentin Roosevelt and his boyhood friend Hamilton Coolidge were part of the first detachment of World War I aviators sent to France, sailing for Europe on the Orduna. They both received flight training at the same aviator’s schools in France and they served in neighboring squadrons.
Hamilton Coolidge became a distinguished American ace and when a direct hit from an anti-aircraft gun felled his plane on October 27, 1918, officers and enlisted men alike mourned him. German fire brought down flying ace Quentin Roosevelt in aerial combat over France on July 14, 1918. Their voyage on the Orduna led them to the last chapters in their lives.
Kenneth Porter Kirkwood of the Royal Naval Air Service departed New York with his comrades on the Orduna on December 15, 1917 bound for Halifax, Nova Scotia. A little more than a week earlier on December 6, 1917, much of Halifax had been destroyed when a Belgian relief ship and a French munitions carried collided in Halifax harbor. The munitions ship had drifted towards the pier and blew to pieces. Fires began and spread and the force of the blast and the fires created a tsunami wave. Thousands of people were killed and injured. To add to the misery, a snowstorm began the next day and continued for nearly a week. The scenes in Halifax were as indelibly impressed on Kenneth Porter Kirkwood’s memory as any of his war time experiences. He wrote:
“Far out on the rocks near the sea we saw the first wreck, a beached ship half submerged…ships were sunk in the docks and only masts appeared through the debris…on land buildings lay in ruins…the relief parties are still at work in the ruins, looking for victims or helping refugees…We lay in Halifax without being permitted to go ashore for a couple of days and then steamed silently out into the Atlantic.”
Voyaging in Peacetime
On April 1, 1920, the Orduna resumed her Liverpool, Rio de Janeiro, Montevideo, and Valparaiso voyages and in May 1921, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company chartered her to sail Hamburg, Southampton, New York. In 1923, the Royal Mail Steam Packet Company purchased the Orduna and rebuilt and converted her to oil burning engines and extended the passenger accommodations to 234 first class, 186 second class and 483 third class. This was the year that the Orduna made her first Welsh speaking cruise from Liverpool to the Norwegian fjords. A chart of the voyage can be found in the Welsh National Museum at Cardiff.
The Orduna continued to be involved in rescues. On April 17, 1923, Captain Burke of the barquentine Clitha reported her abandoned in Lat 41 N, Long 47W, and set on fire. The schooner Jean Campbell rescued the crew and transferred her to the SS Orduna and the Orduna transported the rescued sailors to England.
The Orduna’s peacetime passengers had dramatic stories equal to those of her wartime travelers. The Oakland Tribune of May 20, 1923, told the story of Lieutenant Frederick Wiseman-Clark of the British Navy who sailed aboard the Orduna on May 19, 1923, visibly distraught by the end of his romance with Nancy Hoyt. A Washington socialite and sister of poet Eleanor Wylie, Nancy had broken their engagement on the eve of their wedding.
“Yes, I am afraid it is all off and I don’t think I shall ever be married,” said the young officer. “It has been a terrible blow to me. All I can say is that Miss Hoyt is suffering from a nervous breakdown.”
On March 15, 1924, the Oakland Tribune reported that the British liner Orduna had sailed for Hamburg, Germany, under a one million dollar surety bond with one of three counts charging violation of the Volstead Law dismissed. The trial of the government’s suit for confiscation of the Orduna as a smuggler was postponed until she returned from her present voyage.
Federal officials had seized the Orduna on Wednesday, March 12, and several of her crew members confessed to smuggling liquor and narcotics into the United States. Federal Judge A.N. Hand ruled that the Orduna was not liable to seizure under the Volstead Law unless her captain had been convicted on a charge of violating that law.
The Oakland Tribune of June 26, 1925 told the story of Dorothy Cady of Rochester, New York. Dorothy Cady worked for five years as a secretary and saved her money to fulfill her dream of traveling to Europe. On April 25, 1925, she boarded the Orduna with modest savings and a plan to work her way around Europe using her secretarial skills and returning home at her leisure.
Strict immigration rules brought her plan to a bureaucratic halt. The English officials at Southampton refused to allow her to leave the ship when she told them she wanted to work in England. At Hamburg, Germany, officials were so upset that Miss Cady wanted to work in Germany that they held her onboard during the Orduna’s six day stop in German waters and the American Consul couldn’t help her. After years of saving and savoring the idea of Europe, Dorothy Cady saw Europe only from a porthole.
Miss Cady blamed her honesty for her predicament. “If I had said I was a tourist, the English authorities would not have said anything, but I told them the truth as I was told it was best to do so. But I found it didn’t pay. The next time I’ll be a tourist and do as I please.”
Besides rescue missions and individual stories, the Orduna also had an educational side of its history. Throughout the 1920s, New York University chartered the Orduna to transport students back and forth to France. Dean James E. Lough of New York University’s Extra Mural Division presided over study travel courses that offered college credit for 213 students. The University chartered the SS Orduna for the voyages, featuring special third class accommodations for students complete with a chaperone for women students. The 1926 Travel Course students had a choice of 66 days in Dijon, Tours, or Paris, for a cost of $395-$550 dollars. Side trips complete with lectures included trips to cathedrals, castles, and battlefields.
The Orduna returned to the Pacific Steam Navigation Company in 1927, and resumed the Liverpool, Rio, Montevideo, Valparaiso service. On July 27, 1927, the Oakland Tribune reported that the Orduna had arrived in Tacoma, Washington, the day before with a cargo of copper ore, whale oil, and concentrate from Port Hokan and other Alaskan ports.
In 1930, the Orduna transferred to Liverpool, Panama, Valparaiso sailings and stayed on this route until 1940. In August 1938, the Orduna made a final ‘Peace Cruise’, carrying 460 Boy Scouts and Girl Guides, including Robert and Olave Baden-Powell and their daughter Heather. They traveled to Iceland, Norway, Denmark, and Belgium, departing Liverpool on August 8, 1938. During the voyage, Robert Baden-Powell couldn’t leave the ship because of illness, but local Scouts visited him at almost all of the stops and the Scouts and Guides on the Orduna toured local landmarks and attended receptions.
The Orduna moored beside the German cruiser Emden during a stop at Reykjavik on Thursday, August 11, 1938. A party from the Scouts of Iceland carried aboard some rock so that Baden-Powell could ‘set foot in Iceland.’ Before she returned to Dover, England on August 25, 1938, the Orduna visited Trondheim, Norway, Copenhagen, Denmark, and Belgium.
Transporting Jewish Refugees
In 1939, Nazi Germany continued the persecution of the Jews that it had begun when Adolf Hitler became German Chancellor in 1933. Thousands of Jews tried to flee Germany, but most countries, including the United States, did not readily grant them refuge. In May 1939, several ships including the passenger liners St. Louis and Orduna approached Havana, Cuba, loaded with Jewish refugees.
On May 27, 1939, the same day the St. Louis arrived, the Orduna landed in Havana Harbor, carrying 120 Austrian, Czech, and German Jews. Cuban authorities permitted 48 Orduna passengers holding landing permits to enter Cuba, but would not allow the rest of the 72 passengers to land. On May 29, the Orduna began a voyage for South America with no guarantee that the passengers would be allowed to land in any port. The passengers appealed to the United States to land, since most of them held registration numbers for immigration into the country. In the following weeks the Orduna steamed from port to port, searching for a safe harbor for the refugees.
The Orduna navigated the Panama Canal, and then made brief stops in Colombia, Ecuador, and Peru. While the Orduna remained in port in Ecuador, a Joint Distribution Committee representative arranged for four of the 72 Jews to be rescued. The Orduna’s captain contracted Rabbi Nathan Witkin, Jr. who represented the Jewish Welfare Board stationed in the United States controlled Panama Canal Zone. With the support of the British Pacific Steamship Navigation Company and the Joint Distribution Committee, Rabbi Witkin arranged for the rest of the 68 refugees to be transferred to Lima, Peru, to the British liner Orbita, the sister ship of the Orduna, which was traveling to Europe through the Panama Canal. After more persuasion and negotiation, the remainder of the refugees and 79 additional refugees were transferred to the United States on the U.S. transport ship American Legion.
Navigating Through World War II
Following in the wake of her World War I service, the British Government continued to use the Orduna as a troopship and an evacuation transport. When World War II broke out in Europe in September 1939, the Orduna was moored in Liverpool, preparing to sail. Two days later, she set off with a full passenger list and steamed to New York without escort for most of her voyage. After France capitulated to the Germans in June 1940, the Orduna was chosen as the repatriation ship. She sailed from Liverpool to Lisbon on July 26, 1940, carrying a full complement of French citizens. She sailed at night, fully illuminated under an International Safe Conduct guarantee.
On August 12, 1940, the Orduna again left Liverpool, carrying a privately organized party of sixteen children from Belmont Preparatory School, Hassocks Sussex. The British Government had organized an evacuation program called Children’s Overseas Reception Board to ship British children overseas to safety because of the possibility of Germany invading England. The Orduna arrived safely in Nassau on August 30, 1940. The next month a German submarine torpedoed the City of Benares, another liner carrying evacuated children abroad, and ended the Children’s Overseas Reception Board program.
In February 1941, the French government requisitioned the Orduna as a troopship and between January and May 1941, the Orduna carried part of the West African Division at Berbera after the recapture of Abyssinia. They had been through the entire Abyssinian campaign and the Orduna took them to Durban for transshipment to Lagos. After Madagascar fell in 1942, the Orduna carried the Vichy French governor and his staff from Tamataye to Durban and on her homeward voyage she transported 500 French naval officers and men to Britain to join the Free French forces.
Dr. Harry Inns of Brantford, Ontario remembered his voyage on the Orduna in July 1943. In his memoir he wrote that as part of Strike Squadron No. 621, he embarked on the troop ship Orduna to the east coast of Africa. According to Dr. Inns, his squadron on the Orduna was the first convoy from England to pass through the Mediterranean Sea and the Suez Canal after the North African campaign. He noted that “It really did us good to see the British troops lining the banks of the Suez Canal and cheering as our ships passed by.”
Since the Suez Canal had reopened, the Orduna took the direct route to England instead of the long trip around South Africa that usually took a troop ship about two months. In 1943, the Orduna carried American troops from Oran to Naples in the final phase of the Italian Campaign. The Orduna carried white and a complete unit of colored American troops for the advance on Rome. On another voyage she carried as many as thirteen nationalities aboard.
Bringing the Troops Home
The Orduna had been slated to be commodore vessel for the Malaya Invasion Force in August 1945, and after the Japanese formally surrendered in September 1945, the Orduna carried Allied prisoners of war home. She left Rangoon on September 20, 1945, carrying 1, 714 passengers and jubilant crowds greeted her at her home port of Liverpool. The prisoners of war presented a scroll to the Orduna’s captain which read: “To Capt. J. Williams, officers and crew, S.S. Orduna, in recognition of a happy voyage home from the Far East, from returning British prisoners of war and internees. September, October, 1945.”
Herbert Geoffrey Wells, known as Geoff, was one of the ecstatic returning prisoners of war. A member of the 4th Battalion Suffolk Regiment, Headquarters Medical Section, he survived three and a half years in a Japanese prisoner of war camp in Thailand. In his memoir, the children of Geoff Wells wrote that “after a long sea journey on the SS Orduna, Dad arrived at Liverpool docks on 13 October 1945. He first went to a reception camp in England and on 19 October 1945 he was discharged “fit for leave.”
The Orduna wasn’t discharged as “fit for leave.” She had been one of the lucky ships in the Second World War, because despite her continuous service in many seas she had not fought with the enemy on the sea, land, or air. She continued to transport troops until 1949, making trooping voyages to the East Indies, Indo China and Japan. In November 1950 the Orduna made her last trooping voyage from Liverpool to Singapore and back.
After 36 years of ocean voyages and ten years of steady trooping with little refitting or careful maintenance, the Orduna was decommissioned and laid up. In 1951 the old warrior and voyager was sold for scrap and taken to Dalmuir, Scotland.
Dalmuir, an area of Clydebank in West Dunbartonshire, is located on the north bank of the River Clyde. In the early twentieth century Beardmore’s Naval Construction yards was an important industry and in the 1930s Dalmuir became the site of a Royal Ordnance Factory. Dalmuir presented a significant military target during the Clydebank Blitz and bombs devastated the Ordnance Factory and the ship yards.
Ironically enough after World War II, while some workers in Dalmuir were busy rebuilding the factories and ship yards, others were busy ship breaking at Beardmore’s Naval Construction. The ship breaking included scrapping major battleships, beginning with the HMS Queen Elizabeth and scraping the Orduna, the veteran of two wars, countless adventures, and witness to much human drama.
The Merchant Navy, by Archibald Heard and H. Castle.
Pacific Steam Navigation Company
Glasner, Joyce. Halifax Explosions: Surviving the Blast that Shook a Nation. Altitude Publishing, 2003.
McCluskie, Tom. The Rise and Fall of Harland and Wolff. The History Press, 2013
Thomas, Gordon and Witts, Max Morgan. Voyage of the Damned: A Shocking True Story of Hope, Betrayal, and Nazi Terror. Skyhorse Publishing, 2010.
The New York Times
The Reno Evening Gazette
The Washington Post
The Oakland Tribune